This week, we’re moving beyond the Easter stories to look at some of the ways Jesus talked about his death and resurrection beforehand—so we’re backing up quite a lot in the gospel according to John.
This is going to sound very, very familiar to many of us. These words are a buoy and a comfort in times of heartache, distress, or disturbance—and that is well and good. But I also want to give us some context for these words, which might shift just a little how we receive them.
In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a man on the sabbath who had been born blind, then disappeared. The religious leaders questioned the man who’d been healed, demanding that he say Jesus was evil—not from God, because he didn’t properly observe the sabbath. The man refused, saying Jesus was a prophet, that only God could’ve done what he did. The religious leaders responded by throwing him out of the local synagogue. When Jesus finds out, he goes and finds the man again, and tells him that he’s not only received his physical sight, but new spiritual insight: he sees more clearly than the religious leaders. Some Pharisees overhear, and ask Jesus: “but not us, right?”
And so Jesus begins a series of comparisons between himself and the longstanding tradition of less-than-awesome leadership among God’s people. That’s where we pick up the story.
Scripture: John 10:11-18
‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.’
The Good Shepherd lays down his life—he loves the sheep because they are his. They know his voice, and he knows each one of them. He emphasizes that this is an active choice. His life is not taken, but freely given, and freely taken up again.
The Hired Hand, on the other hand, is loyal only to a point. When things get dangerous or scary, he’s out. The sheep aren’t his, and he doesn’t love them, so why should he risk anything for them?
Jesus is pretty clear about who the Good Shepherd is, leaving the Pharisees to conclude whom they’re being compared to. But it’s not just the Pharisees Jesus is critiquing—it’s generations of kings, leaders, and religious elite who failed to follow God, who failed to care for and protect the people.
Kings who enriched themselves and lived in decadence while draining the people and ignoring the poor, those who couldn’t care for themselves.
Leaders who made decisions not based on what was best for the people, but on what was best for their own ego.
Priests who demanded perfection, who encouraged ritual cleanliness over mercy and purity of heart.
Religious leaders who allowed the Temple courts to be overrun with merchants.
Tax collectors who not only colluded with the occupying empire, but took more than they were sent to collect, building their own wealth at the expense of their neighbors.
But no more—because the shepherd has come to lead the sheep himself.
“I know my own,” he says, “and my own know me.”
The distinction is not necessarily in who’s getting paid, but who knows and loves and cares for the sheep—who invests themselves in their well-being, who is willing to sacrifice for them.
Who is willing to break the rules to care for them, perhaps.
Even the sheep, who are not the smartest creatures on the planet, know their shepherd’s voice. It’s not a question of favoritism, but belonging.
If we bring the metaphor full circle and put ourselves in the sheep’s hooves, we might just land somewhere in the vicinity of this very first question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism, which is part of the PCUSA’s Book of Confessions.
Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
John and the Heidelberg are both driving home the same point: that Jesus can be trusted to guide us, to shelter us, to care for us and lead us home. God is not going to abandon us to figure it out on our own.
But not just us—Jesus hints at the ever-expanding kingdom of God when he continues: “I have other sheep, not of this fold, and I must bring them in, too.”
Jesus’ disciples—Peter, especially—would surely come back to this moment, not only after the resurrection, but also in the days after Pentecost, and in the early years of the Church, when their gatherings ceased to be a solely Jewish movement and began to take on a new form as people from all over the world came to follow this Jesus.
This call to follow, to be the sheep of God’s pasture, is for all people. No more fences, no more separating out the spotted sheep, the brown ones, the black sheep, the unruly or unclean. There is one flock, and one shepherd.
This is why I have a favorite section in the Book of Order. The Book of Order is our denomination’s primary governing document—along with the Book of Confessions, it’s our constitution. I sat down last spring and read the whole thing, cover to cover, because that sounded like a good idea at the time. It was less fun than it sounds, but still fruitful.
There was one passage that I highlighted, underlined, starred, and stuck a post-it in, because it struck me so hard. The thing that unites us as a body is not necessarily anything external. Even in this room, it’s not our politics, our appearance, our favorite sports teams, our beloved hobbies that bring us together. The center of our life and worship in this space is Jesus—nothing more, and nothing less. This from the Book of Order’s section on church membership and the local congregation.
“G-1.0302: A congregation shall welcome all persons who trust in God’s grace in Jesus Christ and desire to become part of the fellowship and ministry of his Church. No person shall be denied membership for any reason not related to profession of faith. The Gospel leads members to extend the fellowship of Christ to all persons. Failure to do so constitutes a rejection of Christ himself and causes a scandal to the Gospel.”
Our job is not to decide who’s in and who’s out. We are not line-in-the-sand people, and we are not the ones wielding the shepherd’s staff. We are the ones who listen for the shepherd’s voice. We are the ones who follow where Jesus leads. We are the ones who seek to love one another, to feed and care for one another, to listen to one another, to help and encourage one another, just as Christ has done for us.
So that, whether we’re in the sketchy, dark valley in the middle of the night or resting in luscious green pastures, whether we are just beginning our journey or looking toward its end, we will always be able to say:
The Lord is my shepherd, and I lack no good thing.